The Sapient Septemviri

Method Etching and stipple
Artist John Kay [after Ross]
Published [John Kay, 1786]
Dimensions Image 93 x 178 mm, Plate 153 x 187 mm, Sheet 154 x 213 mm
Notes A satire on the seven professors of King's College, Aberdeen. Standing in a row facing the viewer, they are addressed by a preacher who stands in a box-shaped pulpit on the extreme left, holding an open book inscribed 'Return Good for Evil'. The figures have numbers referring to their words, &c, engraved beneath the design.

Lifetime impression.

As described in the Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires in the British Museum (VI: 1938), the preacher, '1, The Beauty of Holiness, Lecturing', is Dr. Skene Ogilvy, senior minister of Old Aberdeen, noted for eloquence, humour, and unconventionality. He was very ugly, hence his nickname. The seven professors, wearing gowns, stand in a row on a pavement of black and white squares. The central one wears a papal crown surmounted by a cross. He is '5', saying with a scowl, Agriculture is the Noblest of Sciences, mind your Glebes, the Emperor of China is a Farmer. He is Dr. John Chalmers, Principal of King's College (d. 1800), who devoted himself to agricultural pursuits.

The others (left to right): '8', with the body of a skeleton, holds a scythe, but turns a cheerful profile to the right, saying, Degrees Male and Female in Medicine and Midwifery, sold here for ready money. He is Dr. William Chalmers, Professor of Medicine. Next is '7', saying to the Principal, Colledge property, Patronages are unalienable, so says the Law, the Noble Patron has rewarded most justly your Rapacity. He is Dr. William Thorn, Professor of Civil Law (d. 1795) who was enraged by the alienation of patronages, and declared that the Earl of Fife, by giving so little for them, had justly rewarded rapacity.

Next, and on the Principal's right, is '6', saying to him, Has not the Effulgence of my Countenance been a light unto your feet, and a lamp unto your Paths. He is the learned Thomas Gordon (d. 1797, aged 83), called 'Humorist Gordon', Professor of Philosophy. On the Principal's left is '4', saying, I have rendered Vernacular the Greek Language from Aberdour to Aberdeen. He is John Leslie (d. 1790, aged 69), Professor of Greek, reputed to have made the remark quoted.

Next is '3', wearing a bonnet and Highland dress under his gown, and holding a long Lochaber axe. He says, Annually for 45 years and upwards have I beat up, even to the Ultima Thule have I recruited, our University. He is Roderick McLeod, Sub-Principal since 1764, whose tours in the north of Scotland to recruit for King's College were famous. He succeeded Chalmers as Principal and died 1815 aged 87.

On the extreme right is a jovial man wearing a mitre, in which is a pen. He is '2', saying, Had you not sold your Patronages, First Minister might have been annexed to my Divine Chair of Verity and taste. He is Alexander Gerard, D.D. (1728-93), Professor of Divinity, author of works on taste (1759) and genius (1774), see DNB 1786.

In order to increase the scanty revenue of King's College, 'superiorities and Church Patronages' had been sold for £3,000 to the Earl of Fife, who thus acquired the patronage of about fifteen parishes. The professors are here probably caricatured for their opposition to a scheme (1786) for the union of King's and Marischal Colleges (effected in 1860). Ross, who sent this sketch to Kay, was a native of Aberdeen and a former student of medicine. He lost a post as surgeon to the Navy for caricaturing the officers.

John Kay (1742-1826) was a Scottish miniature painter, satirist, and engraver, chiefly celebrated for his caricatures of many of the most notable Scotsmen of his day. Born in Dalkieth, the son of a Mason, he was orphaned at a young age, and following an unhappy childhood with his mother's relatives in Leith, he was apprenticed to the barber, George Heriot. After six years working under Heriot in Dalkieth, he moved as a journeyman barber to Edinburgh. In 1771, he joined the Corporation of Barber Surgeons, gained the freedom of the city, and set up his own barbershop.

Despite having no formal training in, and no great talent for, the finer points of artistic pursuits, he pursued his drawing with dedication. Kay's quick hand and canny wit made him a natural satirist, and the remarkable likenesses of his earlier portraits to their real world counterparts began to be noticed by his customers. The most important of these was William Nisbet of Dirleton, who would eventually become his patron. Nisbet's death in 1784 brought Kay a small annuity, which enabled him to give up his barbershop, and focus his full attentions on his art. From a small shop in Parliament Close, Edinburgh, Kay issued his portraits. Redgrave attributes to Kay almost nine hundred plates, which constitute an unparalleled chronicle of Edinburgh life at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Kay's portraits, though objectively of only slim artistic merit, are warm, lively, and in some cases, bitingly clever. His talent for provoking his subjects was famous, leading on one occasion to a failed prosecution, and on another to an apparent cudgeling. Despite this, Kay's star continued to rise. In 1811 and 1816, his work was exhibited by the Edinburgh Associated Artists, and in 1822, he contributed to the Institution for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts in Scotland. As early as 1792, he had planned to release a collection of his works in book form, along with a short biographical sketch that supplies almost all of the known details of his life, but the project remained unrealized at his death. It was not until 1837, almost a decade after his death, that a collection of 340 of his plates were first published.

BM Satires 7027

Ex. Col.: Hon. Christopher Lennox-Boyd

Condition: Overall toning and surface dirt to paper, trimmed to the plate top, right, and bottom, small loss to lower left into plate but not affecting the image, manuscript notes in pencil in left margin and in bottom inscription space identifying sitters and explaining the caricature.
Framing mounted
Price £65.00
Stock ID 42583